Adventure, danger, and hardship were all in a day’s work for the brave and reckless young men who rode for the Pony Express. They were all heroes of America’s westward expansion, but one in particular, Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam (1840–1912), epitomized the courage and skill of the Pony Express rider.
In April 1861, with America at the brink of civil war, California was undecided whether to remain with the Union or support the Confederacy. While not a battleground state, California’s reinforcement would be pivotal in the event of war. The side it chose would benefit from the wealth and manpower the state could provide. Abraham Lincoln had just been elected president, and his inaugural address detailed his administration’s policy, which California’s leaders were anxious to read. But first it had to travel nearly 2,000 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., a ride that normally took 80 Pony Express 10 days to deliver. (The ocean route took four weeks.)
The Express broke all its speed records on that run, so urgent was the need to get Lincoln’s address to California. The mochila (leather mail bag) containing Lincoln’s address made it in seven days, 17 hours, and the eight-hour ride by 20-year-old Robert Haslam was the most critical. He rode 13 mustangs on his 120-mile ride through Nevada Territory, part of which traversed hostile Paiute Indian country. According to his journal, he had a “running fight” with warring braves for “three or four miles.” One of their flint-tipped arrows pierced his arm and another broke his jaw, knocking out five teeth. Haslam reportedly escaped by shooting their horses out from under them. Despite his injuries, he completed his leg of the Express route in record time.
The London, England-born Haslam rode for his life that day, but more than that, he may have ridden for the survival of our nation. Lincoln’s vital inaugural address could have been delayed for weeks had Haslam not escaped the Paiutes. And without the address’ mollifying effect, California might have chosen to support the Confederacy, perhaps changing the course of the Civil War. For eight hours that day in 1861, America’s fate rode with a 125-pound young man.
Later known as “Pony Bob,” Haslam was the most famous Pony Express rider of his time, but by the end of his life, his legacy had been mostly forgotten. Rail lines and the telegraph buried most memories of the Pony Express, and Haslam died in a cheap Chicago apartment on Feb. 29, 1912 at the age of 72.